Want to make downhill skiing a big part of your family’s life? Wondering how to afford it? We’re here to help. Read on to find personal tales from families in Traverse City and Petoskey who have figured how to ski more while paying less, discover amazing deals on kids’ gear and score discounts on skiing weekends away. Let it snow (on you and yours)!

Families who spend winters on the ski slopes always have a scheme, a strategy, a plan, for keeping it all affordable. They snag used-but-still-good gear at swaps. For new stuff, they track pre-season and end-of-season sales at shops. They scope season-pass deals like stock analysts, swiping the card at the super-lowest buy-in moment. And the ski resorts and gear-makers are happy to oblige with deals galore, because they are keenly aware that the children skiing today will grow up fast, and one day soon, they’ll bring their kids to the slopes, too. The cycle repeats, and the ski industry thrives for another generation. Here, we check in with three clans who devised unique strategies for saving money during ski season, and discovered more than just a better bottom line.

Score Tickets Just for Smiling

For skiers who spend time at Boyne resorts, earning a spot on the Host Team is like being knighted. Four-hour shifts of working as a host are paid in day-ticket vouchers, and the “work” is pretty darn easy: just be friendly and helpful to Boyne guests.

“My wife, Jane, who runs an affordable housing nonprofit, and I have been volunteering for five or six years now, and we absolutely love it,” says Boyne City resident Scott MacKenzie.

Whether helping with equipment, giving mountain tours, or encouraging beginners up the Magic Carpet, Boyne Hosts make sure people get the most out of their time on the hill.

“It’s a neat program, giving us an opportunity to interact with guests and show them true Northern Michigan hospitality,” MacKenzie says.

Since his kids are good students and can take advantage of the Boyne “Freeride Pass Program” ($49 for an unlimited season pass with a GPA of 3.5 or higher), the MacKenzies often use their tickets to help nieces and nephews get on the hill, and to earn “favorite aunt or uncle status,” he says.

“We’re lucky to participate in a couple of money saving programs,” says the auctioneer, Boyne concierge, and part-owner of a web business. “We’d be at the hill anyway, so any perk is an extra. The real reward is taking time to talk to people who are so wide-eyed and excited about the resort and our area. It helps remind us how lucky we are to live where we do.”

The Boyne Host Team has a limited number of slots available—and there’s usually a waiting list—MacKenzie notes. To learn more, visit boyne.com and search “Host Program.”

Hot Gear Deals for Kids

Boyne Country Sports
Have your children fitted by staff experts to purchase ski equipment that is best suited to their needs and sizes. When buying gear, tack on another $30 to join the Junior Has a Fit program. Return the ski equipment with your sales receipt and program voucher by July 1, and receive a credit of 100 percent of the purchase price toward new gear. Repeat until your kids are sporting adult skis and boots. Locations: boynecountrysports.com.

Bahnhof Sports
The Bahnhof Kids Club is easy: buy your little ripper’s equipment package and receive 100 percent trade allowance when you return the gear by April 30, 2012. Stuff still fit at the end of the season? Keep equipment for two years and still receive 50 percent credit toward the next round of junior skis and boots. Works for skis ranging from 80 to 140 cm. Package costs $269.95, and as an added bonus, when your child outgrows the program, you can redeem that last voucher toward grown-up gear! 800.253.7078 or check out bahnhof.com.

Don Orr Ski’n Beach Haus
Kids grow fast, and the staff at Don Orr wants to make sure that doesn’t deter parents from getting their little ones out on the slopes. This year, the shop started offering a Kids Club program. Buy a ski package—boots, skis and bindings—and get 100 percent credit toward the next size up, all the way to shoe size 7.5, 100 pounds, or 140 cm skis. 800.346.5788, donorrskihaus.com.

Cross Country Ski Headquarters
The Roscommon-area Nordic center offers a junior’s no-wax ski package for $184. Trade up to larger boots or skis for a small fee—check in with the shop for 2011-2012 rates. 800.832.2663, cross-country- ski.com.

Cross Country Ski Shop of Northbound Outfitters
Buying a new cross-country ski package for kids here gives parents the freedom to switch gear sizes whenever a child has outgrown one (or all) equipment pieces. Costs to up-size: Boots $10, skis $15, poles $4. The Grayling shop also offers three race-worthy junior skate-ski packages, starting at $199. 800.889.7456, xcskishop.com.

“The real reward is taking time to talk to people who are so wide-eyed and excited about the resort and our area. It helps remind us how lucky we are to live where we do.” – The MacKenzie family.

Super Patroller, Super Deal

When Jeff Summers zips up his National Ski Patrol jacket, he transforms from husband, plumber and father to the dude who can whip downhill—with a toboggan—in record time, bust out-of-control ski-hill Bozos, and bandage broken appendages without blinking an eye.

The hero factor of patrolling is a very real perk, Summers notes of his nine years on the volunteer job. But the mega bonus for this Traverse City resident is getting his entire family, including his wife, Leslie, and three snow-sport fanatic sons, unlimited passes to Mt. Holiday … for free.

“Okay, I’m not sure, in the long run, if you actually save money being a patroller,” Summers says—when factoring in training and continuing education. “But it has definitely gotten us on the hill more than we ever would have otherwise. Plus, the training I get on the medical side goes well beyond the slopes.”

Summers so enjoys the roughly 80 hours he puts in each season at Mt. Holiday, he’s enrolled in Emergency Medical Technician classes, hoping to someday move West to patrol at a mountain resort.

“It’s a great organization, and lots of people keep volunteering for 20 to 30 years. Walk into any patrol room at any resort and you’ll find someone who is happy to talk about the job. I know most places are always looking for more patrollers, so the opportunity is there for people dedicated enough to try it.”

The National Ski Patrol website offers more information: nsp.org

MyNorth.com Ski Guide: Slope conditions, resort profiles, ski festivals and more!

Slippery Math, in a Good Way

Resorts offer irresistible deals to put people in rooms and on the slopes.

The Homestead in Glen Arbor welcomes skiers and snowboarders to stay two nights, enjoy a breakfast buffet, and lift tickets from arrival to departure starting at $70 per person, per night (hotel stays) or $86 per person, per night (condominium lodging). Rates are good from December 18 thru March 11.

Crystal Mountain’s Pure Michigan family deal packs in the fun with nightly lodging, 9 a.m.–9 p.m. lift tickets, cross-country trail passes, rental equipment for ice skating, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing, fitness classes for the adults, and a whole host of kid-centric fun like face painting, family bonfires, birds of prey shows, story hours and more. $259 per family of four, per night.

Caberfae Peaks Sleep and Ski Package. Ski two days at this resort just west of Cadillac and get lodging for the night in between for $69 per person.

Treetops, Gaylord: The weekend family package includes Friday and Saturday night lodging, arrival night ski passes, two full-day tickets, breakfasts and pizza one night, $368.

Boyne Highlands and Boyne Mountain have family rates starting at $107 per adult, per night, with reduced rates for juniors ages 9–15; ages 8 and under eat, sleep, ski/ride for free. The package price includes lodging, an unlimited lift ticket, hot breakfast, and tubing.

Shanty Creek boasts overnight lodging, one breakfast, one super ticket (good for cross-country trails too), and a group ski lesson for ages 13+, starting at $109 per adult, per night, plus kids eat free.

Birchwood Inn near Harbor Springs can serve as your home away from home with the Season Pass lodging deal. Located near Nub’s Nob and Boyne Highlands, the inn’s Gold Pass—just $1,495—allows unlimited stays all winter long. Silver passes allow the same, with the exception of Christmas week, for only $995. birchwoodinn.com.

Become a Part-Time Local

Weekend warriors, meet the Yeagers—Dane, Nancy, and 10-year-old-daughter Haley—who used to travel from Rockford, Michigan, to Crystal Mountain Resort each winter Friday night, loaded down with gear and carrying the hope that their hotel room would have a mini-fridge for their meager collection of no-kitchen groceries.

Last season, however, the Yeagers made the leap to a winter season rental in Frankfort, and a new world (less packing/unpacking, way better cooking options, more fun) opened up.

“There’s no way we could afford to buy a second home right now, and as much as we like the area, we don’t get up there very much in the summer. Renting [during ski season only] is the perfect option for us,” Dane says of their family suite at the Harbor Lights Resort in Frankfort.

“We looked at a lot of different properties, and ended up at the Harbor Lights because it’s a year-round resort, so it has an indoor pool, plowed parking, wireless Internet, and we still have the benefit of a kitchenette,” Nancy says. Since Harbor Lights is busiest in the summer, the Yeager’s also scored flexibility in lease length and rates, saving a nice chunk of dough.

By keeping the suite for the season, the Yeagers can leave bulky ski gear (and a keyboard for their piano-playing daughter) in Frankfort. It makes the trip Up North every Friday as easy as hopping in the car.

“I basically take a hamper of dirty clothes home on Sunday. Plus, we can stop at the grocery store for real food, so we have the option of staying in for dinner. Though truth is, we go out most of the time—we’re regulars at quite a few places in town,” Nancy says.

“We feel like we have a whole second community now,” Dane says. We’ve gotten to know other families who ski at Crystal every weekend, and whose children are also involved in the race program there. We’ve become really connected. It’s a lot of fun.”

Anyone interested in transforming from hotel hoppers to seasonal renters should take advantage of the tight-knit nature of Northern Michigan communities, Dane says.

“First and foremost, I’d recommend talking to people. Strike up a conversation when you are riding the chairlift, ask around when out to dinner, or hanging in the lodge. Word of mouth is the best way to learn what’s available.”

“We also checked with the Chamber of Commerce,” Nancy says. “It’s amazing what’s out there—families can choose from houses or condos, cabins or hotel suites. A lot of the rentals will save you money, and for people who travel Up North to ski every weekend anyway, it’s worth it just to have going back and forth be less of a hassle.”

The only downside, Nancy says, “was that it made the winter go too fast.”

Renting Ski Gear for Kids

Not sure if your tots are ready for alpine or Nordic glory? Most resorts offer rental deals, as do some shops. Check these:

The Outfitter: Offers daily, weekly, and season-long cross-country rentals. Junior packages for one day are $12. Keep rentals for five days for $50, and keep the skis, boots and poles all season for only $120. Alpine junior packages (including boots, poles, skis) are $20 a day, five-day rentals are $90; season-long rentals are $230.

Dan Webster’s Pro Shop: Season-long rental deals available. $120 for a snowboard and boots set-up for children;  $130 for children’s downhill packages. Want to swap from ski to snowboard (or vice versa) midseason? No problem.

Like this article? Get the January 2012 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine for only $4.95 (shipping included).

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski